Kevin Pearce: Getting back on board

Kevin Pearce has become one of the largest figures in snowboarding’s public eye. He quickly established himself on the sport’s scene by winning events in Sweden, Austria, Germany, and other mountains around the world soon after graduating high school. In 2008, Kevin became the first athlete in X Games history to win three medals in one day and later went on to win another medal in 2009. He has been featured in snowboard documentaries and in countless publications, including Sports Illustrated, Men’s Fitness, and the Huffington Post. A native Vermonter raised in Norwich, Kevin has represented the state and country’s best in snowboarding.
In December 2009, while Kevin was training for the Olympics in Park City, Utah. He struck his head while training on the half-pipe, causing severe brain damage. There were doubts if Kevin would ever snowboard again, let alone be able to walk. But through hard work, focus, and belief, Kevin is on a road to full recovery.
Kevin to NextUp editor Matt Sulva about growing up and snowboarding in Vermont, his success in the sport, and life after his injury as he continues to recover.
“It all started off with my two older brothers who were snowboarding early. I think I was four or five and I started skiing for a little while. Then they started snowboarding and I wanted to do what they were doing so I jumped on a board. Then I never looked back. They had me cruising around but they didn’t make kids’ boards back then. So we were good friends with Jake Burton who owned Burton and he made me the first kids’ snowboard ever. I got to ride on that thing.”
Kevin learned to snowboard on smaller mountains like Mount Ascutney, Dartmouth Skiway, and Suicide Six. He later moved on to bigger mountains like Stratton, Okemo, and Killington.
“It’s hard growing up on the East coast just because it’s so icy and because of its hard conditions. It makes us so much better and stronger because when we go out to Mammoth or the West Coast and it’s just all powder. Stuff’s pretty gnarly back in Vermont with the ice.”
Getting older, Kevin followed his brother Adam and attended the Stratton Mountain School. It was a dream come true for Kevin. He snowboarded every morning and attended school in the afternoon. He frequently switched his schools in order to be able to snowboard year-round. He would later attend Okemo Mountain School and a school out in California.
Kevin eventually returned to Norwich and graduated from Hanover (NH) High School. But all he ever wanted to do was snowboard. He would have his way after graduating.
“It was never really a hard decision for me to fully commit to snowboarding. I never really had any interest in continuing school and going on to college. Snowboarding was more fun and I was good at it. I kind of started to realize that after I started doing well in a couple contests and that I really was good at snowboarding and I might have had a career there.
“So I really focused on that and put all of my energy and effort into snowboarding and started doing well. I thought, cool, I might be able to do something with this and might be able to continue on. It turned out for the best out of high school with so much focus on snowboarding.
“It’s a full-on commitment and you have to go for it all the way. I just remember having to really continue to work hard at it. You know, to really get out there and get to the top didn’t happen in the blink of an eye.”
Kevin’s hard work and focus would later pay off. In 2008, he was invited to compete in the X Games in Aspen. He competed in three events: the Big Air, Slopestyle, and Superpipe. It was a dream come true for Kevin. He won silver medals in the Big Air and Slopestyle, and a bronze medal in Superpipe. His results made him the first athlete in X Games history to win three medals in one day.
Kevin recalls how he felt following his record-breaking day.
“That night was pretty next level because it was always my dream as a kid growing up and watching the X Games. It was always what I wanted besides the Olympics. That was really the thing that mattered most to me, to be able to get into that event. It always felt so farfetched to ride in the X Games. And then to get into all three events and win was just insane. Even to get a letter was nutty. It was beyond anything I could have ever believed to get up to that level and do so well. It was pretty crazy.”
Kevin continued to make his name in the sport, winning silver in the Superpipe at X Games 2009. But months later, Kevin would face the largest obstacle of his life. On December 31, 2009, Kevin dropped in on the training half-pipe in Park City in preparation for the Winter Olympics. The next thing he remembered was lying in a hospital bed, having no recollection of his fall. Kevin had injured his brain to the point where he could not perform his body’s most basic functions.
But that did not stop Kevin Pearce. The man who worked so hard to achieve his dreams would prove to work even harder to keep them. After his condition stabilized over several months, Kevin has shown significant signs of improvement.  Everyday he goes through cognitive and physical therapy to recover. Kevin weighs in on his injury, recovery, and how his incredible focus and hard work have helped push him to where he is now.
“It’s pretty next-level, kind of where I was and where I’ve come from and where I am now. And just how bad it was and how serious and really crazy the injury was… On the brink of death and to be here right now.
“The biggest part for me is to not take away how much work it’s been and how hard it’s been. It’s kind of been like everything I’ve done in life. The reason I got to the top of snowboarding was because of how hard I worked and I feel like it’s been the same exact thing through this injury.”
Kevin may seem all right on the surface, but it’s been hard for him inside knowing that his brain is still healing. He knows that it will take time to make a full recovery, and he still has a lot of work to do.
“Earlier today I was doing cognitive homework and eye homework. It’s constant work and I am doing so well. But that’s the thing about the brain. It’s that I look so fine, but it’s so invisible about how I’m not doing fine. The things I do are so hard but nobody can tell. Whether it’s my balance, or my memory, or my vision. So many things come into play.”
“But compared to where I was, not even being able to swallow or walk, to being so much better now is pretty incredible. This morning I even woke up and I beat my brother and my dad today on this par 3 golf course.”
Kevin had a lot of input when asked about what advice he would give young athletes, especially on the slopes.
“The most important thing is to wear a helmet. That’s the most important thing, especially about the East coast, or the ice-coast as we call it.”
“I think that I’m lucky because I can give this example that no matter how far down you go and how bad things are, you can come back from anything. If you just put your mind to it and stay focused and continue to do all the right things. Whatever happens, if you break your wrist or your head, you have to deal with it in the right way and make sure you come back from it right.”
“Besides that, go out there and enjoy yourself. Don’t always take things too seriously. Have fun with it all. You’re not trying to take it too gnarly. Just really enjoy yourself because it’s so special just to be able to get out there and snowboard or ski and do your thing up on the mountain.”
Through his recovery, Kevin has been able to keep several passions he holds close outside of snowboarding. He is a huge surfer, and it is the only other board sport that he has been able to get back into since the injury. He’s also been playing golf and basketball with his family, and other mellow sports. But of course, the next step is snowboarding.
“It’s just waiting on that one. It’s take-it-as-you-go as I continue to heal. Just making sure I get back to a certain point that I’ll be able to get back at it. But the fact that I’ll even be able to get back after this is pretty incredible after the intensity of this injury.
“I just want to get back and be able to give it all. Not just mess around on my board. Obviously, I won’t be at the same level I was, but to be at a high level. I feel like I’ve been able to inspire kids who go through recovery and inspire kids to get back on a snowboard again.”
In the broad scope of things, Kevin realizes the importance of living and growing up in Vermont. It will always be a home for him, and it has helped him through his injury and recovery.
“I think that everyone that grows up in Vermont is really lucky. Whether it’s the mountains or the great people. It’s just such a beautiful state and I feel like you begin to realize that after you start to travel around. You see how special it really is. I feel like I’ve been pretty much everywhere in the world and still love coming back to Vermont just because of how special all the little things are here.”
“Just coming home to my family and feeling the comfort of being home. It’s just awesome.”
It’s been quite the ride for Kevin over the last several years. His main goal is to still focus on snowboarding and somehow be involved in the sport down the road. But he has also sparked interest in other passions, such as public speaking.
“I’m really trying to figure out what’s next for me. What I’m going to do now that kind of took a turn from snowboarding, which was my whole life. One thing I’ve been getting into is public speaking and really kind of trying to get the word out there about brain injuries and snowboarding. It could also be announcing snowboarding at the X Games, which I did last year and was pretty fun. Also just trying different things now until I figure out something I’m really passionate about.”
Kevin will be successful in whatever he puts his mind to. He has proven it time and time again. And we as Vermonters are here for the ride with him, cheering and hoping for only the best. We look forward to the day Kevin steps back on his board. But in the meantime, we will honor his hard work and perseverance. And we will cherish all that Kevin has given back our state, as he no doubt will continue to do.

Kevin Pearce Profile:
What’s currently on your iPod?
I’m into the classic tunes nowadays. Whether it’s Neil Young, Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, or bands like that.
Favorite place to snowboard out of Vermont? In Vermont?
Out of Vermont… Mammoth in California and also Japan. In Vermont, Stowe.
Favorite athletes:
Right now I’d give it to some of the Celtics, I’m a huge fan. Kelly Slater is a big one on my list. Kelly’s pretty amazing and he’s a good guy. As far as snowboarding, my buddy Danny Davis and the whole Frends crew. Those guys have inspired me and done so much. (
Favorite teacher in high school:
Cindy Geilich. She helped me get through high school and all the work I had to do.
Hobbies people wouldn’t generally know about you:
Playing Cornhole and Ladder Golf.
by Matt Sulva